NEW YORK — Thirteen-year-old Izyan Ahmad, known as “Zizou,” was in the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday afternoon to watch one of his favorite tennis players at the U.S. Open — Frances Tiafoe.
Ahmad, who lives in Wayne and trains at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island, attended Monday’s matches with his mother, Nida, and sister, Inara. Later that evening, after they had departed Ashe Stadium, Coco Gauff played the opening match of the first night session at the Open.
Tiafoe and Gauff — both of whom are Black and have advanced to the third round of the Open — are inspiring younger generations of tennis players to take up and pursue the game, much in the same way that Venus and Serena Williams did when their careers launched in the late 1990s.
African-American participation in tennis has increased by 46 percent over the last three years, with 2.3 million players in 2022, according to the United States Tennis Association. Asian and Pacific Islander participation has increased by 37 percent over the last three years, with 2.4 million players in 2022.
“I think [Tiafoe and Gauff] are inspiring a lot of other people to play, especially at the Open,” said Ahmad, whose parents were born in India. “They also have the biggest crowds and they’re huge motivators for people like us who want to try and play. They definitely help the sport in a huge way.”
A year ago, Tiafoe became the first American man since 2006 to reach the U.S. Open semifinals. He beat 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, making major headlines for American tennis.
His run made him a hero among a wave of young Americans, including many people of color.
“A lot of kids want to play the game now because of me,” Tiafoe, 25, said ahead of the Open. “I feel that. Definitely a big responsibility. It’s definitely a place you want to be in, a place you want to continue to grow and have people want to play the game. ... I think it helps because it’s not a normal face you see doing that every day here at the U.S. Open.”
Ahmad, who is No. 7 nationally in the 14-and-under rankings, has actually met both Gauff and Tiafoe through his burgeoning tennis career.
“I met Coco in 2017 at a USTA camp [when he was 7],” he said. “I even played doubles with her. She was really, really nice.”
He met Tiafoe last year at Les Petits As USA Nationals playoffs, a junior tennis tournament in Florida.
“He came there and he even watched me play a match,” Ahmad said. “He was also really, really cool to be around and he was a great inspiration.”
Ahmad also has history with Roger Federer. In 2017, he asked Federer at a U.S. Open press conference to stick around long enough on the tour so that Ahmad could play against him when he turned pro.
“Pinky promise,” Federer said at the time with a wry smile.
Federer retired last year, but the two did meet again last year when Barilla pasta flew Ahmad to Zurich as part of a promotion where Ahmad got to hit with the Swiss tennis legend.
“We made a promise, right? We’re going to play. Are you ready?” Federer said.
“Oh, my god, thank you. I’m so excited,” Ahmad answered.
Gauff, meantime, has inspired other New Jersey prodigies like 10-year-old Rainey Lee who lives near Montclair and trains with Bob Bynum, the head men’s and women’s tennis coach at FDU-Florham and the head of the Bynum Tennis coaching program.
“I watched her on TV,” Lee, who is African-American, said of Gauff by phone. “I want her to win [the U.S. Open]. She’s really young and she’s really good. She’s doing stuff that most people don’t do until they’re older.”
Gauff, 19, reached the French Open finals in 2022 and came into the Open as arguably the hottest player on the women’s tour, having won titles in Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati.
Lee’s mother, Robin Wilson, said they plan to take a page out of the Williams’s sister book and not have Rainey play junior tennis tournaments too early because that world can be so cut-throat.
“She came in the third place in the Hershey tournament,” said Wilson, who serves as the CEO of CLEAN HOME DESIGN, a leading global lifestyle brand for allergen aware consumers. “She has played in tournaments against 16-year-olds, and she is one of those prodigy kids. Coach Bob and I are trying to keep her in the fun aspect and then, just like Venus and Serena, when she hits 11, 12, [we’ll] take her out and she’ll just win everything. We’re being very strategic about it because the Junior circuit can be pretty competitive. That’s why Coco skipped it and that’s why i think she’s so excited to watch Coco.”
Gauff, in turn, was inspired by Venus and Serena and is now the No. 2-ranked American woman.
“Definitely the Williams sisters,” Gauff said earlier this month after beating world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in Cincinnati. “They’re the reasons why I started playing tennis and honestly that fight, watching them fight day in and day out...Just their fight, who they are on and off the court.”
Tennis can be an expensive sport with all the costs associated with coaching, travel, equipment, tournament fees, etc., and that can sometimes price out people from lower-income communities.
Ahmad is on a scholarship at the McEnroe Tennis Academy and recently volunteered at a fundraising event for the Johnny Mac Tennis Project in the Hamptons that raised $650,000 in support of inner city tennis.
“Tennis is a very expensive sport and a lot of people struggle with paying for the training and traveling for tournaments because they can’t afford it,” said Farooq Ahmad, Zizou’s father. “We’ve been lucky to have Johnny Mac Tennis Project to support us in terms of training and travel.”
Wilson, Rainey’s mom, called the costs associated with tennis “extreme.”
“Most families sacrifice if their child is in an organized sport, but with team sports, the cost is often shared,” she said. “But with single-player sports like ice skating or tennis, all the costs fall onto parents unless the child becomes part of a league.”
For now, Lee and Ahmad are among a young generation of New Jersey prodigies dreaming of following in the footsteps of Gauff and Tiafoe.
“That’s my goal, to become a professional player,” Ahmad said. “My main goals are are to be No. 1 in the world and I’d like to win Grand Slams, if possible.”
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Adam Zagoria is a freelance reporter who covers Seton Hall and NJ college basketball for NJ Advance Media. You may follow him on Twitter @AdamZagoria and check out his Website at ZAGSBLOG.com.